Thursday, December 6, 2012

Letting Go - 2012 The North Face Endurance Challenge

Going into the 2012 The North Face Endurance Challenge ("TNF"), I had it all:

- Rested legs
- An amped mindset
- The best running shoes for the muddy conditions
- The best "Brain iPod" song
- A best friend helping me, before, during and after
- A great setting with great competitors and human beings to run with

And it all went to shit with a unceremonious splat.  Sometimes having it all - or having too much - can weigh you down.  And on those Marin climbs, I felt like a thousand pounds...

I worked a full week Monday through Thursday, then caught an early flight to Sacramento.  Jake picked me up at the airport, blasting critical positive-vibe popWe made a quick stop-off for some footwear, as I'd been struggling with choices for the impending hurricane predicted for The Headlands.  On a total whim, I picked up a terrific pair of Salomon Speedcross, and they fit and felt great, with a monster tread.

With that, we were on our way to the Bay.  Stopping at Muir Beach, we enjoyed a windy but dry shake out run/hike up the Muir climb.  Incredible views met us atop the Coastal Trail.  I even demo'd some yoga moves on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.  I was so ready to stomp! 

Friday night sunset at Muir Beach
That pre-race day was some great catch-up time for Jake and me.  We had some terrific, stirring, and important conversations - but, perhaps, not the sorts of things you want to mull with a pre-race mindset. 

After a couple great beers (OK, a few), we hit the sack early.

It was an easy up-and-at 'em for 3:30AM on Saturday morning.  In 2011, I was a total zombie; I resolved to be ready this year.  As such, I was blasting my race-day song in our hotel room before Jake had even performed his "morning constitutional". 

"I notice that you got it
You notice that I want it
You know that I can take it
To the next level, baby"

The mood was set.  Some breakfast, a quick coffee and salutations to The Boss Man, as we rode for Ft Barry.

The weather was pretty solid, given the dire forecasts: windy and misty, but not cold.  Nonetheless, I Olive-Oiled Up, liberally, on the arms and legs - if nothing else as rain and wind repellant.  I jogged a bit, did drills, then toed the line with a few score of the best runners in the World.  Cool.  Just as cool, a bunch of great guys.  I embraced mi amigo Jorge ("M8") amidst the final words from Karno, and, like that, we were off.

Race Start
We got out pretty comfortably up the hill out of Ft Barry and onto the pavement.  I somehow wound up front with a couple fellas - one of them was Cam Clayton, because he was tall as hell.  You know you're in a pretty big race when, not only are the fellas next to you not speaking English...but that you can't even figure out what language they're speaking.  Along we ran, down the mild decline toward the first dirty rabbit ear, up and around the first climb.

The weather played havoc with comfort and temperature control.  Running uphill, with the wind, guys were shedding layers like pole dancers - I doffed my hat and gloves, but was glad to keep the jacket, because by the time we'd ascended and bombed down the hill, into the wind, things equalized.

I always start slow.  Always.  It always, always hurts early, no matter what.  And almost always, given enough time, I "callous over", quit caring, and can crank it.  I accepted that reality with only mild bitterness as we began that first climb, slipping from the lead back, gradually getting absorbed by the chase pack, then being pooped out the back of that, as well.  I felt sluggish, and I felt like I was working really hard.  But I didn't care.

Soon, I settled in a bit with some of my favorite guys: Gary Gellin, then Dave Mackey rolled up beside me, and soon we were joined by The Hal Daddy.  I struggled to keep contact with them, however, until we summited the rabbit ear.  The descent felt excellent: I rolled effortlessly and caught the trio at the bottom and we ran together toward Tennessee Valley.

The stride felt terrific on the downs and flats; I focused on the compact, efficient stride and a strong push off the right leg.  After the usual physical and mental malaise, I was coming around at just the right time.  I looked forward to grinding it out with the help of some Trail Guys, on our way to Muir Beach.


Starting the climb to Tennessee, I immediately fell off pace.  My legs felt like a thousand pounds.  Each.  I worked the stride: pelvis, hips, gluts, anything.  I was doing it, but nothing was coming out; in fact, it was as if my legs were balooning up with lactic acid.

I shuffled up that climb through relentless wind and rain.  Crazy stuff.  I could barely see ten feet in front of me.  It would've been a blast if my legs weren't redwood trees.  On the flats and downs to Tennessee Valley AS (~8mi, ~63 minutes), I caught no one, and remained about 100m behind the next runner.

Through the AS, I made my way down the road, westward, to the Pacific.  Hard rain and wind.  My hat and gloves, tucked into my shorts band, flopped with the weight of flour bags.  I struggled to put them back on, nearly dropping my headlamp and bottle.  I fumbled for an S!Cap.  Finally organized, I got the stride together.  I looked up.

Alone.  Black.

I pushed onward, looking for specs of light, hoping for runners, only finding glowsticks, illumiating the climb up to the Coastal Trail.  I pushed and pushed, never walking.

Trudging along amidst the tempest, I began to feel soreness in my right hand.  I looked, and felt - my hand had a death-grip on my bottle.  A surge of pain, then relief as I let it go.

"Let it go."

It was time.

For the past month, maybe a few months, I'd been holding a great deal of stress, from all directions: a back strain three weeks out sent me reeling, and was wreaking psychological havoc even o Friday morning; (having to lie down and stretch between flights is not a good sign); personal, relationship stresses -has whirled through me in torrents, akin to the morning's storm.

For the past month, I've felt like the apprentice, frantically organizing the messes of my mind.  And though I felt like I did so with greater aplomb than Mickey, I didn't recognize the physical toll.  But I did on those hills.  The reason I felt so "on" that morning was, I've been "on", non-stop, for the past month.  Like leaving the headlights on overnight, it had drained the life from my legs. 

I had to let go of the painful grip: of my bottle, my ambitions, my pain, my heart.  Let it GO.

So I did.  I slowed to a sustainable jog along the rolling Coastal Trail.  Peace returned.  I took in the scene around me:

"You call this a storm??"

Dark. Rain. Wind. Fog. Cliffs. Ocean. Alone.

It was exhilarating. Letting go of the race, the toil, the expectations, the burden, I just ran.  Alone.  Not another headlamp in sight.  Perched precariously on the very edge of the Western Hemisphere, the pure power of nature around me.  Indeed, it was one of the coolest, most joyful moments in my running career.

I picked my way along the trail, doing occasional route-finding, as the fog and rain was so thick I could scarcely follow the trail.  I found two downed trail markers - one of which prevented a headlong descent into the Pacific - and restored them.  I made my way, patiently but honestly, to Muir Beach.

There I met Jake.  "I've got nothing, but I'm gonna keep going".  Encouraging and supportive as always, he stocked my gels, helped me adjust my shoes, and shooed me out of the aid station.

I got my stride together on the flat loop around Muir Beach, rolling back to the climb.  The stride felt smooth, but I wasn't going anywhere.  I picked my way slowly up the hill; never walking, but with little power.

It was over.  And I was OK with that.  I picked my way along, encouraging folks as they bombed down the hill to the AS.  I very slowly passed a couple guys who'd blasted past me in the AS.  Then, once again, I was alone.

Letting go is hard. To let go - to surrender without giving up - is both an exhale and inhale, a release, but a rushing in.  It was emotional, but the emotions were buffered by the pain of the unrelenting climbs.  Moreover, whenever I did begin to get emotional, I'd start thinking of this song, then laugh, and totally ruin the experience.  ;-)

Still moving OK, I focused on efficiency, picking my way down the new trail segment into Tennessee Valley.  I was done, I knew it, but I was wholly committed to a full lap back to Ft. Barry.  At the AS, I got some appreciated encouragement from BP, who asked, "Did you use enough Olive Oil?"

Yes, Bryon, I had on plenty, thanks.

Leaving the AS for the final climb, I came across a runner walking down the hill at me.  Wearing a TC Running Company jersey, I knew it had to be Chris Lundstrom.  I've known of and admired Chris, a fellow MN native, beastly road guy (2:19 at the '08 Trials, at least) and budding trail stud.  I introduced myself, we chatted a bit, and I tried to get him to come my way, but his calf was wrecked.  Once again, I shuffled on, alone.

Midway up the climb, I spied another struggling runner - doing the walk-jog shuffle.  I approached and saluted to find Jesse Haynes!  I'd also known of Jesse for quite a while, but never had a chance to talk.  We shared battle stories and gathered up our strides over the last climb up and over toward Ft. Barry.  We talked about racing, 2013 and Western States ("You only take what your body will give...unless it's the last Saturday in June...or it's the Saturday that gets you to the last Saturday in June!").  We also found out that we went to high school in Wisconsin (little Phillips, WI, for Jesse). 

We enjoyed a relaxed but honest descent to the starting out and back.  There we saw bits of the competition - Hal, Ricky, and some other fellas on their way back out for a second helping of rain, wind and mud.  I felt a surge of competitiveness, then took pause: "It's easy to be competitive after a three-mile downhill...".

We jogged into the start-finish.  I took a knee. 

It's hard to quit a race.  I hope it stays that way.

The understanding was that BGD would be at Ft Barry when I arrived, but - perhaps as a punitive act from above - he was not.  It was cool and misty, and soon I was shivering.  Jesse came to my rescue by securing us a ride to Tennessee Valley. Whether Jake was there or not didn't matter; the warm car was a godsend.  From there, we got a ride straight back to Ft. Barry with Kiera and Jesse, where we ran into Jake.

I was a little worried to see him; I felt like I let him down.  But he understood.  He always does. 

As swaddled myself in warm layers, he filled me in on the chaos of the day - guys getting lost, doing "penalty laps", guys leading who weren't, guys who thought they were in 16th place but were actually leading...  Ugh.  I wanted to stick around and support and socialize, but I couldn't stomach the chaos or drama.  So we left.

23 mile run. Shower.  In 'N Out.  Lagunitas.  All before 1PM.  Still a great day.

Thanks to everyone for their support: to Jake before, during and post-race, to the gentlemen runners out there who encouraged me throughout, for Jesse for helping me at the end and after the race, for awesome Drymax socks that once again took great care of my feet, and to everyone north and east supporting from afar.

Overall, this year's North Face race was important:  it was my first race against international-caliber competition  since Western States.  It was a good wake-up call to the level of fitness, toughness, and overall preparation required to have a 2013 equal to what I did this year.  Moreover, my ambitions for '13, namely Western States are not simply to tread water, but to improve...

Jake's "boobful" of Brown Sugga, and my cask-style Little Sumthin' - Lagunitas Brewery, Petaluma, CA
...but not before a "little snack" at In N Out Burger.

What else do you do, 3-hours post-race?  Plan your Western States Training Camp '13 schedule, of course! 

SUNDAY: It's Sara's turn!  At the windy, rainy start of the Cal International Marathon in Sacramento.

Finishing!  3:09:05

Tired?  For a couple minutes...
Ultra veteran Erik Skaden, who led the 3:05 pace-group.  He'd better watch out for Sara in the future!

Post-races, on Sunday.  A couple of my favorite people.
Sunday evening, heading to SMF.  Now it gets nice...
Wanna make friends with airport employees? Bring In N Out through security...


  1. Joe, really inspiring to read all of the positives you pulled from the race. Letting go in that moment must have been difficult. Neat to hear how necessarily liberating it was too. Sounds like you're more motivated than ever (and looks like you refueled appropriately too : ) Can't wait to see how you adjust and move forward, as you certainly will.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jason! We'll have to hammer out some aggressions on Hardesty soon! :)